How Parents Can Control Childhood Obesity

Mother and child yoga
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Within families, there’s often a monkey-see-monkey-do dynamic when it comes to many behaviors—and eating and exercise habits are no exceptions. The reality is, kids tend to emulate their parents’ eating and exercise habits. This means if parents consume an unhealthy diet, the kids have a good chance of following in their footsteps. Fortunately, the flip side is true as well—if parents consume healthy meals and snacks, their kids are likely to follow suit. In other words, parents have the power to shape their children’s eating and exercise habits in ways that can prevent them from becoming overweight or improve their weight status if they’re already overweight.

These influences start early. In a recent study, researchers from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine found that parents’ nutrition and physical activity patterns significantly influence their preschoolers’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, junk food, and their amount of physical activity or sedentary behavior. These patterns can add up and have a cumulative effect on a child’s weight. Here’s a look at the different ways these influences play out:

Parenting Style

It’s not just what family members eat and how much they move that influence a child’s weight gain pattern. Parenting style also plays a role. Research indicates, for example, that when parents exert excessive control over what, when, and how much their children eat, the kids may be at higher risk of becoming overweight. After reviewing the medical literature on parents’ child-feeding behaviors and their children’s weight, researchers in the U.K. concluded that “[p]arents may inadvertently promote excess weight gain in childhood by using inappropriate child-feeding” tactics such as restricting children’s eating or pressuring them to eat.

For one thing, research suggests that when overweight parents who have trouble controlling their own food intake adopt controlling ways of feeding their child, the approach often backfires: Rather than reducing their son’s or daughter’s risk of becoming overweight, this controlling feeding style may promote problematic eating habits in the child, ones that can interact with a genetic predisposition to obesity, leading to weight gain. The influence is especially powerful with mothers. Research from the Obesity Prevention Program at Harvard Medical School found that kids whose mothers engaged in restrictive feeding when they were one year old were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) at age three than those whose mothers didn’t have restrictive feeding styles.

Feeding Practices

When parents prepare healthy family meals—consisting of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, low-fat dairy products and lean protein —and refuse to resort to being a short-order cook who caters to pint-size palates, kids end up benefiting. This way, everyone in the family consumes a balanced, healthy diet and kids learn to appreciate, if not actually prefer, healthier foods. In a review of 60 studies on the subject, researchers in the U.K. found that adolescents whose parents consume plenty of fruits and vegetables tend to consume more fruits and vegetables, too.

Another good strategy: Involve kids in food preparation. A recent study from Switzerland found that when children were involved in preparing a meal (chicken, pasta, salad, and cauliflower) with a parent, they ate 76 percent more salad and 24 percent more chicken than when the same meal was prepared solo by the parent. If you have the option of growing produce at home, this can have a positive effect on kids’ eating habits, too. A study involving 1,658 parents and their preschool-age children in Missouri found that preschoolers in households with more homegrown produce tended to have a greater preference for fruits and vegetables than their peers who didn’t have an abundance of homegrown produce.

Exercise Habits

It stands to reason that if parents are physically active, their kids will be, too—and research suggests this is true. In a study involving 1,124 12-year-old children and their parents, researchers in Sweden found that girls and boys who had two physically active parents were four times and nine times more likely, respectively, to be engaged in vigorous physical activity or sports than kids whose parents were inactive.

There’s a direct effect (due to parents’ modeling of physical activity) and an indirect effect (in the form of encouragement, support, and involvement). Moms and Dads may have different influences in these respects: In a study involving 1,278 children ages 10 to 11, researchers in Finland found that fathers’ modeling of physical activity had a direct effect on their kids’ physical activity, whereas mothers’ modeling and parental encouragement had more of an indirect effect—by boosting kids’ perceived competence and interest in being physically active.  

Putting the Pieces Together 

Given the choice between modeling healthy eating and exercise habits and trying to control your child’s behavior, it’s better to opt for the former approach. In particular, a positive parental role model is more effective at improving a child’s diet and instilling higher levels of body satisfaction, according to research from the U.K. A positive parental role model can also inspire kids to get moving (and stay moving!). 

The best ways to achieve this is with an appropriate division of responsibility: Parents should choose what the family eats by serving healthy foods at every meal and snack, and children should be allowed to decide how much to eat at each occasion. Parents should exercise regularly and provide plenty of opportunities and encouragement for their kids to be physically active, then let kids discover their own love of movement. This approach gently sets the stage for better weight management and helps kids develop healthy eating and exercise habits for life.  

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